Building an open-world game ain’t easy. Without a strong foundation, everything can quickly collapse. In the case of Watch Dogs that foundation is the Disrupt engine, the product of over four years of dedication and tests and trials. In that time Ubisoft Montreal has built an engine that’s both flexible and efficient, while allowing for an astounding level of detail and a seamlessly online environment.
Senior Producer Dominic Guay breaks down this awe-inspiring engine into three parts: dynamism, impact on the city, and connectivity. And because the Disrupt engine was built specifically to power Watch Dogs, we also uncovered a healthy helping of new gameplay details to go along with all the tantalizing tech talk.
The surface layer of the Disrupt engine is focused on what Guay describes as “dynamism,” or the simulation systems within the game: “In our city we simulate the way people drive cars. The electricity is simulated. The water is simulated. The wind is simulated. Everything reacts to everything. Making all those systems talk to one another is where you get branching reactions.”
Take the rain, for example. When the sky starts to open up, civilians will pull out umbrellas. The lights reflect off wet surfaces. We can see the wind shifting the direction of the rain and blowing debris around. Even leaves and trash on the ground will begin to appear damp and weighted down by moisture. These small but significant details lend an unparalleled level of immersion to Watch Dogs.
Even the clothing comes to life in Watch Dogs. It boggles the mind to think about just how long was spent getting the simple act of Aiden putting his hands in his pockets to look just right. The wind pulling at a passerby’s clothing will cause them to tighten their jackets. “Everyone on the street should have clothing simulation,” Guay says. “We want to see it blow in the wind and move with them.”
These are merely the “details,” though. Something major like a car crash will create a widespread ripple effect. Civilians will get caught up in a traffic jam and start honking or even leave their cars to investigate. Others will be injured in the wreck. Onlookers will alert emergency response teams. It all combines to offer an unprecedented amount of realism in a videogame.
As important as those details are, a game isn’t made with raindrops and dynamically generated bullet holes alone. Also important are the ways in which a player can affect the entire city, primarily noticeable through its residents. While there’s no simplistic back-and-white morality system in Watch Dogs, Aiden’s actions will trigger reactions from the game’s NPCs. We got the breakdown from Animation Director Colin Graham: “The reputation system isn’t a good or evil meter. It’s actually the perception people have of your actions. It completely affects how the city will react to you. If you run around just taking everybody out and killing tons of people, the citizens are going to think you’re kind of a jerk and they’re going to call the cops every time you do something wrong. You’re going to get spotted by the media more.”
In other words, should you choose to play the game in a more openly violent fashion – gun constantly in hand, killing indiscriminately in front of civilians – the people of Chicago will be more liable to turn on you. They will call the police when they see you, and your face will wind up on the news a lot more often. “We think it’s much more empowering to the player if he feels like he has made an impact on the city,” Guay elaborates. “We want him to make his own decisions instead of us forcing decisions on him.”
In Watch Dogs, you can go from being connected and online with other players to being fully disconnected – without affecting the world or changing the environment. That’s no small feat, and this seamless connectivity is another key pillar of the Disrupt engine. “There’s no loading or matchmaking or waiting for a game to start,” Guay says. “That means that every single thing in the game needed to be ready to be synchronized with the network. Every aspect of animation and physics and the AI needed to work online with other players.”
But don’t worry about thousands of stalkers, hackers and griefers ruining your day. When you’re in your game, you won’t see other players just running around wreaking havoc. That would diminish the immersion Disrupt works so hard to build. The only time another player will actually enter your world is when they accept a contract with your name on it. From there they can creep through your city streets, stalking you until they decide to strike. They will appear to you as any other Chicagoan, just like you would appear nondescript to them should you invade their game. There will never be two Aidens on the screen.
Though the engine is built with this connectivity in mind, it can be turned off for players who prefer to explore unhindered by any outside influences. The multiplayer will also be unavailable during story missions, so you don’t need to worry about hackers while you’re in the middle of an important moment.
We know not everyone will be rushing out to buy the new PS4 or Xbox One right away and that’s totally okay. Enter the “fourth pillar” of Disrupt: The engine was built for next-gen, but it’s flexible enough to allow owners of current-gen systems to still get an amazing experience. “We knew we would have next-gen hardware coming out before we ship,” Guay says. “But we started off knowing we wanted to support PS3 and Xbox 360.” The trick is in knowing how to scale things appropriately for both console generations. This allows designers to keep the overall experience the same. “On current-gen systems we may need to cut down the number of people on the street a little, but it’s still the same game. You don’t get the same sense of the crowd, but it allows us to scale certain bits and keep the same experience.”
Graham illuminates the graphical differences: “Players are going to know they aren’t getting a bad experience if they play Watch Dogs for the current gen, but the next gen is the real HD experience. You can zoom in another level. You can have better shaders, better simulation on the wind or the water, more particles, better atmospherics… Basically anything you can get with more computing power.”
So have no fear if you plan on playing Watch Dogs on the PS3 or 360. There are no trimmed-down mechanics to make you feel as though you are missing out on the core experience. Watch Dogs is truly a next-gen game – not just in terms of offering cutting edge graphical performance on the next generation of consoles, but also when it comes to the gameplay, the immersion and the seamless online experience. And that’s due in large part to a great foundation: the Disrupt Engine.